Virtual reality (VR) can help people overcome a fear of heights, a new study shows.
A team of researchers led by Professor Daniel Freeman from the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry developed a VR programme in which psychological therapy is delivered by a computer-generated virtual coach. Treatment is personalised, with users able to interact with the virtual coach using voice recognition technology.
In a randomised controlled trial published in The Lancet Psychiatry, 100 people with a fear of heights were randomly allocated to the VR therapy or to no treatment. Those who received the therapy spent an average of two hours in VR over five treatment sessions, dealing with situations such as crossing a rickety walkway, rescuing a cat from a tree, and playing a xylophone on the edge of a balcony.
Fear of heights was reduced in all participants in the VR group. The average reduction was 68%, and half of the participants in the VR group had a reduction in fear of heights by over three quarters. According to the researchers, these results are better than those expected with the best psychological intervention delivered face to face with a therapist.
Welcoming the findings, Professor Freeman said: “We were confident the treatment would prove effective, but the outcomes exceeded our expectations. Over three quarters of the participants receiving the VR treatments showed at least a halving of their fear of heights.
“Our study demonstrates that virtual reality can be an extremely powerful means to deliver psychological therapy.”
The VR experience triggers the same psychological and physiological reactions as real-life situations, allowing participants to apply what they learn from VR therapy in the real world, Professor Freeman explained.
The study was funded by University of Oxford spinout company Oxford VR and the National Institute of Health Research Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.